Sentient Beings

What do you get when you cross sex trafficking with an octopus? Wait – hear me out, this is not a terrible joke; this is an honest look at the world around me and the decisions that go into writing about it.  A local article posted to Facebook from Toronto Life about sex trafficking in our region caught my eye – would a line from the piece resonate with me?  Would I find myself writing about this topic?  Before the article took me by surprise, I was intent on sharing my recent interest in a book I’m reading about The Octopus, The Sea, and The Deep Origins of Consciousness called Other Minds, by Peter Godfrey-Smith.

Life is a tapestry, a smorgasbord of content, and my pen is my needle and with each colourful thread I weave into sentences my ideas are brought into being.

Additional topics floating through my mind:  the weather, the absolute dull greyness of the season; the February blahs and a need to escape, or maybe that was less of an idea and more of a feeling.  Winter weighs heavily on my mind.  One minute (last week) you’re up; the next, the sky is grey and meaningless, a piece of your life’s work gets rejected, your husband abandons you for work (insert melodramatic violin playing here) and you’re looking after your parents’ dog who gives you this look of constant disappointment.  You can’t measure up.  You receive that rejection and think ha! this next piece is going to sell.  That next piece, which you feel like it has taken you five years to get to this place of pitching it; you achieve the impossible and pare down your thoughts into one simplified beautiful email.  You take your time on the email pitch, spend the best hour of the morning on it then send it to its intended destination with bated breath.  You receive the universe’s reply before lunch, “I’m going to pass.”  Hopes dashed right out of the gate, before noon.  But there’s more hope!  They’ve passed your piece onto a colleague!  “They’re going to pass, too.”  Alas, you sigh deeply, failure.

Life is just like that!  Write it down.

I’m waiting to hear about a big project, a story I want to write, but waiting, waiting is so painful.  I’m not a very patient person or perhaps (refer to last week’s post) my type A personality leanings mean I have a hard time relinquishing control.  But you know what helps?  To bide my time, I read.  Whenever I’m in a bit of a rut, I turn to books.  I create a new world around me.  Books hardly ever fail me, and when they do, I put that one away and pick up another.  There are loads of lives to choose from when our own lacks luster.  I keep stacks of books at my bedside and ready to go on my phone.  On the brain and in my ear.  I listen to books when I work out:  on the bike, on the treadmill, out for a run on dry earth and icy sidewalks.  I listen to books when my husband’s away and I need fifteen minutes to do the dishes and clean up.

“Go play,” I tell the kids, and in go my earplugs as the tap whooshes on and now Jessica Simpson is telling me about her latest tummy tuck (yes, I listened to Open Book – don’t judge me – I fully intend to offset said trashy Hollywood star drama memoir by next reading Les Misérables in French, a 19th century hefty literary classic, to give my brain a stretch.  Also, I’m going to stick up for Jessica and say I have to hand it to her for putting herself out there, whether she did really write most of that book like she says she did or not. Though spoiler, I think she skipped over some of the juicy bits, to tell you the truth).

Stories are fodder for the fire that burns within me.  Here’s where sex trafficking comes in:  I see an article where a person is telling their story in a format referred to as memoir or narrative nonfiction – the kind of writing that I write.  From there, I think of selling one of my stories to that same media outlet.  A new pitch is born.  This is the act of paying attention, salvaging what is useful.  A website.  The name of a magazine.  A particular detail.  Illegal sex trade, you name it.  The writer in me also seeks out how does this woman go about telling her story?  I’m curious.  I’m leaning in and I’m learning.

And my connection to octopuses, you ask? Why did I even mention that book in the first paragraph of this blog post?  Well, because there’s a story there.  I feel like I could write a whole essay about octopuses, and maybe I will, but for the time being I’ll imprint upon you a few contrasting images from real-life.

I met with a woman who told me her baby was born with their intestines outside of their body.  This happened to her, twice.  Once with her first child; they told her it would never happen again.  Then again, with her second child.  The first time she laid eyes on her baby’s intestines strung up in a pile overtop of her baby’s body in a clear plastic bag, she thought, well those intestines look like an octopus.  That’s one of those lines and images that stays with you.  After my meeting with this woman, I walked through the library and there was a book with an octopus on the cover and I had to feel it in my hands, take a closer look.  There was something drawing me to the octopus; I couldn’t tear my eyes away.  Life is like that – unpredictable, seemingly random – and so are the connections we make.  But they mean something.

Our youngest daughter, Penelope, is obsessed with octopuses since our around-the-world trip.  While traveling, we visited three different aquariums (two in Japan, one in Portugal), and saw many octopuses, and then she began to ask for one.  A real one.  We aren’t in the habit of picking up gifts for the kids, especially live creatures, like cephalopods; nor do we treat Valentine’s day as a gilded affair, but I walked into Chapters and there was the most perfect plush pink giant octopus with life-like tentacles that a girl could ever want, and so I bought it for Penelope under the guise of a Valentine’s day gift.  Now picture a three-year-old decked out in her favourite magenta dress with sequined stars, and a magnificent mop of golden-brown curls on top, squeezing her beloved new plucky pink octopus stuffy tight in an embrace of pure adoration.  “I love you, octa-pus!” she declares, then proceeds to introduce him to the other stuffies in town.  “This is bunny…”. In ten years, when she’s thirteen, twenty-three, thirty-three, can I hold onto this memory?  Of a girl and her octa-pus.

I signed out the octopus book, Other Minds, on a hunch and took it home with me.  I should note I am not averse to signing books out and taking them right back (you’ve been warned, crappy books).  I make it a habit to swing by the library – a great free location to write, undisturbed, and a great place to stumble across random books about octopuses.  The octopus book opens with a narrative, which is immediately more interesting than just biological or psychological or philosophical babble, which is hopefully not where the rest of the book is headed.

The opening scene takes place off the coast of Australia; a diver descends into the depths of the ocean and comes across an unusual scene:  a large group of octopuses hanging out on a pile of thousands of empty scallop shells with a handful of baby sharks.  What hooked me though, was the diver’s encounter with an octopus.

Octopuses don’t shy away from human touch; they are highly tactile.  The diver explains, “If you sit in front of their den and reach out a hand, they’ll often send out an arm or two, first to explore you, and then – absurdly – to try to haul you into their lair.”  The octopus does this initially for gastronomic purposes, but realizing it can’t eat you, out of curiosity, an octopus will still pull you in for a closer look, if you let it.  In case you were worried for the diver’s safety, the octopus he’s referring to is about the size of a cat.  We aren’t the only ones searching for meaning.

From the time she was born, we have jokingly referred to Penelope as our Genius Baby.  Imagine my surprise at the end of the first chapter of the octopus book when I find this paragraph:

“Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals.  Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behaviour.  If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over.  This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.”

I had to laugh then, that Penelope, our Genius Baby, latched onto the octopus, the “intelligent alien” of the ocean as her invertebrate of choice and object of affection.

Interesting cephalopod fact: the eyes of an octopus work like ours.  They zoom in and out like a camera, and it was these eyes that developed through evolution, in addition to more complex brains, to help protect us from predation that similarly evolved over time.  Jelly fish never used to have poisonous barbs.

Another interesting fact.  Never turn your back on an octopus in captivity, as that is when they will make their escape and you’ll turn around to find your octopus, once neatly contained in a bucket, is now crawling along the floor (think Hank from Finding Dory); and even when you are observing them, watch out for their spray.  Octopuses can and will selectively shoot water out at people they don’t like.  What fascinating creatures, right?  I know.  This book was a great find.

The world at large and the world of books are equally as fascinating to me.  If we stay attuned, we learn and grow from both making our way through the world and skimming our finger across the page.  A writer’s job is to then translate that knowledge onto their own page, weave the tapestry, in the form of an interesting story. Make every stitch count.

Do octopuses hold a special meaning for me, now that I’ve given them a narrative in my life, even in relation to others?  Of course.  I will never look at an octopus similarly again.  But whether I imagine a baby’s intestines dangling in a plastic bag, or a friendly cephalopod handshake with a pull, or my three-year-old daughter squeezing her stuffy tight, will depend on the day and the story I want to tell.  The meaning I want to make.

The life of a writer is just like that.

 

The Rise and The Fall

Our lives move in waves.  People come swimming in and out of them.  Projects ebb and flow.  Relationships crest and crash, smooth out and can eventually flatten completely if we let them, while life continues until the next dip, the following rise, the next encounter with the sway of the currents.

My life has taken some pretty interesting rises and falls, let me tell you.

I recently read a beautiful essay about how most stories are like sine waves – whether the telling begins in the dip or the crest, the end on a high or a low, and what happens in between those curves is up to the storyteller – but the basic form of our collective narrative is the rise and the fall.  Again and again.  Throughout history.  We rise and we fall, and we get back up and do it again.

I’m telling you this because I sat on a friend’s couch today.  I sat and I listened as she told me a part of her story.  I sat with a notebook on my lap and as she described a sliver of the events in her life, a pattern began to emerge and a sine wave took shape in my mind, which translated into my pen moving in waves along the page.  A story snake.  I saw clearly the rise and fall, the rise and the fall, her rise and her fall.  Over and over, again.  This woman is resilient beyond belief.  She struck me as heroic and she is brave, but I bet she wouldn’t want me to tell you that.  Because she is also every woman.  She is you and she is me.  Hers is a story I badly want to tell.  And the thing is, the thing is, her story has become part of my story.  Our stories are intertwining as we strive to build a relationship, a partnership, ride the waves together.  Our sine waves overlapping, our story snakes becoming friends, acquainting themselves with one another.  She wants me to be the teller of her story.  What happens next will either be the rise, or the fall.  This is the pattern, on repeat, of our lives.

And I couldn’t help but reflect on my own life, on my own story snake, as I drove away from her house and made my way to the library to get to work.  My life has similarly had its troughs and peaks, its highs and its lows, and I realized that at this moment, right now, TODAY, this is a high point.  And in reflecting, I see there are really only two truths to reaching that high, to loving your life and being happy and fulfilled.  If I had to simplify, yes, I’d say there are only two.  I know you know what they are in your heart but humour me.

  1. Do what you love.  2. Persevere.  That is it.

Life is hard, incredibly hard.  And UNFAIR.  So unfair.  You’ll never get what you deserve.  Unless you work for it.  And I’m not talking about I’m going to work on this thing I want for a day or two.  If you want something, and I mean really want something, you have to be in it for the long haul.  I’m not talking about I’m going to hope this happens.  A friend of mine posted this quotation from Antoine de Saint-Exupery the other day, and oh how it resonated within me,

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”

I would add, a goal without a plan and the perseverance to see that plan through is just a wish.  Hold onto hope and faith.  They have their place.  But believe, most of all, believe in yourself.  Believe in your goals.  And make a plan.  Then push through it.  Ignore the naysayers, there will be plenty.  Ignore the naysayers in your own head.

I met with a friend the other day who once was a competitive swimmer and knew about my former life as a competitive gymnast.  “You must have body issues from being in gymnastics,” she surmised.  Au contraire.  My coaches never talked negatively about our young bodies, instead they marvelled and praised us for what our amazing bodies could do once we earned it.

I almost quit gymnastics at age nine – the year I became a competitive athlete.  This was a major low point for me.  I had to learn to do a back handspring (popularly referred to as a backflip).  If I didn’t do it, there would be no moving forward.  Go backwards to move forward, I see the irony.  I was terrified.  My mom took me out for lunch one school day after mysterious stomach aches had materialized.  She was rightfully worried about me.  She asked me frankly what I wanted to do about gymnastics, if I would continue.  There was no judgement, only love and support in her voice.  I made the decision then to push on.  This was a conscious decision and it was mine to make.

By the time I was twelve, I could do a roundoff back handspring with a layout full twist in the air.  Floor became my strongest event and I loved it.  That year my floor routine, with all its back (and front) flips, placed second in the province for my age and level.  Was it because I had been given the choice, didn’t give up, and then succeeded that I loved tumbling all-the-more?  Maybe.  Couldn’t hurt.

I didn’t learn to loath my body through gymnastics, I learned to respect it.  My body sent me soaring through the air, flipping around a bar high above the ground, turning backwards on a balance beam and dismounting off the side in a back tuck with a perfectly stuck landing.  My body felt strong and well and could do amazing things and I’ve never forgotten that feeling.  My stint as a competitive gymnast brought me confidence that I have carried with me throughout my entire life.

Gymnastics practices were grueling, and they were long.  I learned how to be tough.  How to survive five-hour training sessions that ended with runs outside on the burning gravel in the summer heat.  How to fall on my head and get back up and try again.  How to turn my body into one huge muscle, then how to make those muscles ache; the balance between strength and graceful beauty.  Gymnastics gave me grit.  I learned how to handle pain and stick it out, when it is worth it.  You don’t put yourself through hell for things that aren’t worth it.  Children, worth it.  Athletic pursuits, worth it.  Family and friends, worth it.  Writing a book, worth it.  Building a career, worth it.  Passion projects, worth it.

Some things that aren’t worth it: toxic friendships, money for the wrong reasons, a bad marriage, situations that invoke guilt, doing things out of shame or a feeling that you ‘have to’, letting others take advantage of you, crutches or quick-fixes, abusive partners…the list goes on.  Not all of these things I’ve experienced first-hand, but certainly I’ve been duped into my fair share of bad ideas.  I’ve lead myself down some not-so-good roads, to some not-so-good places.  But today’s my day.

Life is too short not to ride the high of the waves, and lately, I feel like I’ve been surfing.  Literally, I have been surfing, and that’s part of it, but there’s more.

There was a time I had a handful of blog posts and one measly article to my name.  The piece was the story of my daughter Elyse and my love for her.  The piece was about what people with Down syndrome can do if we believe they are capable.  I’m still telling that same story, my message has not changed, but my platform has grown, and so have I.  Elyse is set to be on the cover of a national magazine, with my article as the feature piece.  I did not see that coming, I did not prepare for that high, but maybe I did.  I have a book ready for publication, another on the way.  I’m set to start my MFA in creative writing this spring.  Everything I have done up to this point has brought me here.  Not one thing goes to waste, even those times I was duped, those perceived failures.  Those not-so-good roads to go down; I learned from them.

Was it my teenage years of being a competitive gymnast that gave me the strength and determination to write and keep on writing the past eight years until I would arrive at a book and a new career? Until my writing would appear in newspapers and magazines and that my message would be heard?  You tell me.

“You’re Type A,” my husband says, meaning it as a compliment, in that I am driven, competitive, ambitious, highly-organized and aware of time management (but as psychology is one of my majors, I need to point out Type As are also widely known as being impatient, aggressive, more stressed and a slew of other not-so-nice words, like psychopaths – all of which I reject completely).   But I’m not so sure that’s it.  I don’t think my life has arrived within me innately.  I’m a person who’s always had to work her ass off to get what she wants, and where she wants to go.  I have trained myself hard to ride those waves, and I have no doubt it was the training that got me to where I am today, and the many, many, many, many, MANY times my face has slammed down hard against the waves as I fell off my board.  But I’m in training for the long haul, and I’m not going to quit.  As far as I have come with my writing and my story, there are so many places left to go, pages to fill.  I want to make waves around the world.

My husband, who pokes fun at my psychology degree – but exclusively reads books about psychology – calls this attitude of mine a “growth mindset.”  His eyes get wet when he says it, like the psychological term holds great reverence, and I suppose it does.  There is something to be said for believing that with determination and hard work you’ll get there, no matter your innate abilities.

Whatever comes next, the rise or the fall, and historically speaking, I may be headed for the fall, I’m going to hold on tight and ride my board while this wave of good feelings and good fortune lasts.

Rise and fall.  Rise and fall.  Our chests heave.  In and out, like breath.  Our very lifeforce.  Breathe.

And when the swell returns; I’ll be ready to catch that next wave.

Misunderstandings, If You Will

Discrimination is shocking.  Like a slap to the face.  And I’ve only experienced it second hand.  Or maybe discrimination is too harsh a word.  Maybe ‘misunderstanding’ is the label I’m searching for in this context, but I don’t think so.

When it comes to my daughter Elyse, I have an overflowing jar of ‘meaning-wells’ on my shelf but somehow the more I receive, the less ‘well-meanings’ I seem to have.  With the sheer volume of superfluous good intentions, the point is lost, losing its effect, because good intentions and ‘meaning-wells’ mean nothing when you’re drowning in them and when what you actually need is someone to listen, take you seriously.  We are at risk of drowning in the well-meanings of others and losing Elyse at sea without careful vigilance.

How hard it is for parents who don’t have a child with Down syndrome to see, for anyone really outside of individuals with Down syndrome themselves and their family members to understand how people with Down syndrome are discriminated against on the basis of their diagnosis.  Let me share a story to illustrate what I mean.

Around the time Elyse turned three, was learning to walk, and we took the girls to Disney Land, Elyse learned the letters of the alphabet. Her speech was delayed, but she made sounds and enthusiastically yammered on, mostly nonsensically.  Yet, she could say her letters.

The year she turned three she attended an exceptional Montessori preschool that fostered life skills as well as academic pursuits.  The school focused specifically on letters and letter sounds.  Simultaneously, at home, from the time Elyse was in the womb, we have read to her.  In the NICU at the hospital, recovering from surgery as a newborn, she was read to.  The nurses too, would lean in for story time.  Sound has a way of curling around our insides like touch, and we aimed to heal our daughter’s wounds with our words.  Books, comprised of letters and their sounds, were Elyse’s salve.

At three, we allowed Elyse to use the sesame street app that teaches letters on an Ipad, which she was intensely interested in.

One day, when grandma and grandad were over, it was grandma who pointed out to me that she thought Elyse was labelling her letters.  I had an art easel out with letters printed on it, probably something I was doing to help Ariel, our eldest, who had yet to master the alphabet, for lack of interest.  “B, D, T” Elyse said clearly, pointing to each letter correctly, one at a time, though she could barely speak.  I was in shock!  Elyse, eighteen months younger, learned to label the letters of the alphabet before Ariel did.  Keep in mind, Ariel, her older sister, is bright and inquisitive and receives excellent grades in school.

Fast forward now to Junior Kindergarten.  Elyse is still three years old because her birthday is later in the year and she isn’t toilet-trained.  I know how she looks to the outside observer with her pull-ups and small stature.  Infantile comes to mind.  But there is so much going on, so much, that is not readily apparent because of her language delays.  Then add in the fact that we send her to French school.  Now she has to learn all of the letters again, in French.  Admittedly, this takes her a while, but by the end of JK, she’s mostly there and into SK, surely, she has solidified this knowledge she first latched onto so young.

Roll into grade one.  Learning her letters shows up on her Individual Education Plan (IEP) as an expectation.  I am adamant this be removed.  Should Elyse choose not to demonstrate this knowledge, it’s because she is bored of it, not because she doesn’t know it.  Her school is phenomenal.  They listen to my concerns and we work together to get the expectations for Elyse’s learning where they need to be.  Expectations are raised higher up, where they need to go.  Once changed, the expectations remain realistic.

Enter grade two, the grade she is currently in.  Letters are no longer on the school agenda, THANK GOD, but sounds are up there, as they should be.  As you might have predicted (or maybe not?), Elyse is obsessed with books.  She looks at books all day long in her spare time and we offer her an abundance in French and English.  She has an intense interest in examining each page, but she isn’t quite able to decipher those words yet.  She will likely learn to read holistically by decoding whole words by their shape, rather than how most kids are taught, which is using a phonetic approach, i.e. by sounding words out.  Of course, there is great value in Elyse learning her sounds and the plan is that she will come to reading by blending the two strategies (holistic and phonetic).  She can read certain repetitive short texts already, small sight words, it’s a matter of building on what she knows and where she is at.  The same as for any child.

If we were really to take genetics into account when it comes to Elyse learning her letters, then we should probably look to her parents.  I am a writer and I am a teacher who taught grade one students a second language and then taught those same students to read in that language.  Now I help adult writers with their words.  I read no less than one hundred books a year, and you can damn well bet that my kids are going to experience literacy to the fullest.  In addition to a litany of scientific papers, my husband has one book to his name, in the form of a PhD thesis.  Our kids have two devoted parents, actively involved in their children’s lives.  And don’t get me started on their incredible grandparents.

Would you doubt our children would learn their letters?

But there are unfair barriers to Elyse’s success.  Every new year is like a new beginning of convincing others of what Elyse can do.  We recently started a special reading program, and the therapist outlined goals.

On the third week of Elyse’s sessions, I arrive to find an alphabet chart out.

“What are you doing with that?” I ask cautiously.

“We’re working on her letters!”  Oh no, you’re not.

I quickly, calmly, explain Elyse is way past that.

The therapist then hands me a paper with four attainable learning goals for Elyse laid out.  These are the goals Elyse will be working on for the duration of the program.  The second goal reads, ‘To recognize ten letters.’

“No, absolutely not, not this one,” I point out immediately.

“You’re a woman who knows what she wants!” the therapist replies.

No, I’m a woman who knows what her daughter needs.

This therapist means well, I know they do, and Elyse loves them and I believe that they care and that they are good at their job.  I am so grateful for the work they do because our family benefits from the support.  But THANK goodness they were consulting me, and open to my suggestions/demands.  Elyse will not be subjected to ‘learning’ her letters again.

The feeling I’m left with from the experience (and this is not the first nor will it be the last time) is that learning outcomes, in many contexts, are too often being made based on assumptions, prejudices, discrimination – misunderstandings, if you will.  She has Down syndrome; she is Down syndrome, therefore she will only be able to do X, Y, and Z.  No, no, NO!!!  These folks mean well, but NO!  I share this story not to shame; the problem is a societal issue.

It’s time to raise the bar.  To assume competence, capability and intelligence.  Elyse’s preschool teacher, a woman I know who really saw her, used to say to me all the time, “She’s a smart cookie!”  And you know, she’s my kid, but I don’t care, I’ll say it anyway, she IS a smart cookie, and she deserves to be treated as such.  She deserves the same respect other students do, the same chances at inquiry, the same push to succeed and grow, all of the best efforts to get her to learn.  She does not deserve to relearn the alphabet.  Every. Single. Year.

In Elyse’s place, wouldn’t you be bored?  And how forgiving of misunderstandings would you be if it was your child?

 

 

Stay Humble

I’ve been at the pool three days a week lately, triathlon training, and I developed this sort of confidence that maybe I was getting to be a pretty good swimmer.  Despite my affinity for water, up until recently, I considered myself a not-so-good swimmer.  I hit the pool regularly for a whole year leading up to the two sprint triathlons I completed last summer, and I still felt as though I was half drowning on race day (partly because I was).  Regardless, I got through the 700-meter swim portion of the race – twice.  But you can’t ‘get through’ a two-kilometer swim, the half ironman distance I’m now training for; or rather, you can, but it’s not advisable.  I want to feel like a mermaid in the water, otherwise I’m not going to be able to ‘get through’ the ninety-kilometer bike ride and half marathon to finish the ironman.

With a coach, I now have so much of a better idea of how to prepare in the water – of course I do!  I used to jump in a lane and swim for distance, completely ignoring technique, interval training, and speed work.  It’s swimming!  I’ve been doing it since I was a kid!  What’s there to know?  As it turns out, a lot.  The mermaid bit, those aren’t my words.  Let me explain.

So I’m hitting the pool about three days a week, as per my coach’s plan, and feeling pretty good about myself.  If you ever want to feel good about yourself, this is how you go about doing it: look the part.  Get properly outfitted, in other words.  I bought myself two snazzy new suits that actually fit me correctly and goggles that were made for my face.  I also snagged a cap that has extra room for hair pulled back in a bun – genius design!  About the suits, bathing suits should fit you like a second skin.  I had no idea.  I was wearing a bathing suit that was about four sizes too big for me before, I kid you not.  The bathing suits I squeeze myself into now feel like they were made for my kids’ dolls, but the kind woman at the swimwear speciality store assures me they are the correct fit.  I can tell you without a doubt that tighter is better when it comes to swimwear, especially after a friend recently shared her swim story with me.  On her first day back to the lane swim in years, she got eyeballed for choosing the ‘medium speed’ lane (there are complicated pool politics) and rudely asked, “are you sure you’re fast enough to swim in this lane?”  As if that wasn’t bad enough, poor woman, determined to prove the bugger wrong (in yesteryears she was a competitive swimmer) she took off down the medium lane, determined to make a good pace.  On the way back, in the middle of her exertions, both of her breasts popped out.  I’m sorry, there is no redemption in this story – my friend hasn’t gone back – but we will honour the incident as a cautionary tale, the moral being to wear a suit that fits snug in the chest.

One of my weekly swim training sessions is part of a Masters swim class.  The beauty of these classes is there is a coach on hand, and we are presented with a set amount of drills.  There’s a camaraderie with the other swimmers and best of all, you usually have a lane to yourself or with only one other person.  At the onset of the Masters swim class I was feeling good about myself because a) I looked the part, with my skin-tight suit and shiny new goggles, and b) I was finding Masters relatively easy, while some of my peers seemed to find it hard.  To give you a sense, the harder workouts my triathlon coach provided including almost an extra kilometer of swim work in the same amount of time as the one-hour Masters class.  On top of that, at Masters we are allowed to wear fins.  If you aren’t familiar with the awesome power of fins let me tell you this: they give you turbo power in the water.  It’s like going from a rowboat to a yacht.  I flew through the first few weeks of Masters swim and didn’t I feel so high and mighty.  Then it happened.

On the third week of Masters swim class we got a new coach.  At the end of class, he suggested the workout he was assigned to give us seemed too easy for some of us and that he would be stepping it up a notch the following week.  I clearly thought he was talking to me.  I approached him when the other swimmers went to get changed and told him I was training for an Ironman and he said he’d help me get there.  Surprisingly, he made no comment about what an outstanding swimmer I was.

Fast forward to the next week.  The new coach gives me a few pointers about my stroke.  I’m not getting it.  I’m not lifting my elbows high enough out of the water, but my arm is going too high.  This is really tricky to try and fix when you’re trying to keep up with a pack of swimmers and the pace of the workout, but I did my best.  I couldn’t help but notice for the first time that whenever we did a drill holding a flutter board and using only our legs, I was generally the first one across by quite a few seconds (yay running legs!), but when we threw arms into the equation, many swimmers were finishing close to the same time as me and some before me.  Some who weren’t wearing fins like I was.

Here it comes.  “Hang back a minute,” the new coach said, as he sent the others on their way.  “I want you to watch her technique over there, do you see how her arms and hands barely skim the surface of the water?  You are lifting your arms up way too high.”  I stood there and I watched, and I learned from someone who was doing the work better than I was.

“I am going to record you so you can see what you’re doing,” new coach told me.

Oh. My. God.  So that’s what I look like?

I was grateful for the new coach’s honesty.  He was so kind about it too, not making me feel bad in the slightest in front of the others.  Clearly, he doesn’t want me to drown in the two-kilometer portion of the race, either.

I walked up to the woman afterwards who was oblivious at having been my good example of how to swim, and I told her in a friendly tone, “he told me to watch you.”  I was pleasantly surprised when she explained that I will know that what I am doing in the water is right because I’ll feel like a mermaid.  I want to feel that way.  I’m working toward that ease and delight.  I told her my frustrations with my arms, and she explained that when she gets tired, she tells herself, “think eleven and one, arms at eleven and one” that is where she aims in front of her.  I found that to be a helpful piece of advice.  I regularly find it helpful to defer and inquire of those who possess more skill than I do.  In other words, it’s beneficial, as a learner, to stay humble.  Keep yourself in check.

After giving a talk about Down syndrome in a school with my friend Emily, where hundreds of kids screamed, clapped and cheered for us, I hit up the pool.  Nearing the completion of the hour-long lane swim, I was one of the only ones still out there, if not the only one.  An older gentleman who has been kind to me in the past sat there watching me, and as I took my ten second break between sets, he called out, “I don’t know how you do it!” which made me laugh.  I felt like ducking my head under the water.  “She’s a wonder woman!” he called out to no one in particular, as I blasted off away from him, propelling myself through the water to the other side of the pool.  On my way back, he called out one last sentiment, “You deserve a gold medal!” And with that, he left, leaving me to figure out the mechanics of my stroke.